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Wood Dove

Wood Dove is one of a cycle of four symphonic poems from the mid-1890s depicting folk tales. The narrative of the single-movement Wood Dove is a dark one.

Antonín Dvořák was born in Nelahozeves (Mühlhausen), Bohemia, on September 8, 1841, and died in Prague on May 1, 1904. He composed Holoubek (Wood Dove, which one also sees translated as “The Wild Dove”) in 1896/97; it was premiered in Brno, Moravia, under the composer Leoš Janáček’s direction on March 20, 1898.

The score of Wood Dove calls for 2 flutes (1st doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, small snare drum, bass drum), harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Wood Dove is about 18 minutes long.

The Dvořák of the American imagination, at least among concertgoers, is the composer of the New World Symphony, and rightly so. It is, indeed, the fifth-most-performed piece among American symphony orchestras. The largo became an American spiritual of sorts with the added text “Goin’ Home” in an arrangement by William Arms Fisher, a student of Dvořák. It was sung at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s funeral service and was later a favorite of the African American bass-baritone Paul Robeson. To that list of works familiar to American audiences we could add the American String Quartet, the Eighth Symphony, the Dumky Piano Trio, and Slavonic Dances.

Wood Dove (1898) shows that there was far more to Dvořák than that. It is one of a group of four tone poems—The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and Wood Dove—that suggest a dichotomy between the “American” Dvořák and the European one, the latter including not only the above-mentioned works but songs, choral music, thirteen other string quartets, and operas. Alex Ross has asserted that Dvořák’s turn to the tone poem, rather than continuing with the symphony, was an effort on his part to engage with a broader audience, but it was an effort that fell short.

The Ninth Symphony still remains a core of the American repertoire, even a part of popular culture, such as the “Goin’ Home” spiritual or even rap: the rap artist Ludacris samples from the last movement of the New World for one of his songs (“Coming 2 America,” 2001). The affinity between African Americans and Dvořák is hardly accidental, given the composer’s deep interest in African American music especially as a potential source for an original American classical music. He had a number of excellent Black music pupils, given Conservatory founder Jeannette Thurber’s insistence, in 1892, that the school accept women and African Americans. This superb yet forgotten work by Dvořák shows that there is a lot more to be discovered about this leading Czech composer.

The son of a butcher who, along with his wife, eagerly supported their precocious son, young Antonín was like a dry sponge in Prague, enthusiastically absorbing all that the Czech capital had to offer. There the young man saw Liszt, Clara Schumann, and Hans von Bülow in performance, and the great Czech composer Bedřich Smetana later took him under his wing. He was a gifted organist and violist who played an amazingly varied repertoire of both church music and orchestral music not only under the baton of Smetana but once even under Richard Wagner in a concert of orchestral excerpts, and he remained devoted to Wagner throughout his life.

Dvořák began as a composer writing sacred music, dances, chamber works, and even early symphonies and knew enough of musical politics, early on, to realize that he would have to make it in Vienna if he wished for a major career as a European composer. In 1877, he submitted his portfolio to judges of the Austrian State Stipendium, which included, among others, Johannes Brahms and Brahms advocate Eduard Hanslick, who were mightily impressed with his work; Brahms arranged a contract with Simrock, a major publishing house of international stature. Dvořák thus joined the Vienna musical mainstream, and he got a commission to write his Sixth Symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic and composed a violin concerto for Brahms’s friend Joseph Joachim.

Dvořák’s fame reached English-speaking lands as well; the London Philharmonic Society commissioned his Seventh Symphony, the first of his three masterful final symphonies. In America, he received an invitation by Jeanette Thurber to direct the National Conservatory of Music in New York for almost $500,000 in today’s money—an astounding sum, which was cut slightly the next year. The aim was to establish an American school of composition. He had a number of notable students, including Rubin Goldmark, a popular American nationalist composer, who taught George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, among others. One member of the conservatory faculty was the famed cellist, conductor, and composer Victor Herbert, who had just finished his Second Concerto for Cello in E minor (1894), which convinced Dvořák that it was a viable genre. Dvořák’s cello concerto followed within a year, though it premiered after his return to Europe.

That return to Europe, to his Czech homeland, marked a significant change in Dvořák’s output: no more symphonies, sonatas, quartets, or concertos. No longer in need of fame, he left the Viennese mainstream and the Brahmsian genres that had given him recognition, and he embraced his native Bohemia. Some critics such as Brahms’s apostle, Edward Hanslick, were taken aback that Dvořák had seemingly been swept away by Wagner’s “music of the future.” Hanslick stated:

I am an appreciative audience where Dvořák’s music is concerned, perhaps I perceive its appeal all too keenly yet, even so, I could not remain silent regarding the dangers of this latest tendency. Dvořák has no cause to go begging before literary texts (and what literature this is!), that they might bolster his composition. His rich musical invention needs no loans, crutches, or instruction…. It is with a strange passion that Dvořák now indulges in ugly, unnatural, and ghastly stories which correspond so little to his amiable character and to the true musician that he is.

Alex Ross observed that it was “as if he had imagined the first line of his obituary being written—‘lowborn composer who gave the German symphony a rustic air’—and tried for a different outcome.” So he, more or less, joined the post-Wagnerian “new German school,” which (like Strauss) focused on tone poems and operas. His 1900 opera Rusalka successfully intermingles a post-Wagnerian harmonic language with Bohemian folk elements, and the same can be said of his tone poems of 1896.

These four tone poems begin Dvořák’s final creative period, and they all come from a single source, Karel Erben’s Kytice (“bouquet” or “garland”), a collection of thirteen folk ballads. These late works form a culmination of Dvořák’s long interest in Erben’s ballads, dating back to 1871 when he set the poem “Orphan’s Bed” to music. Also based on Erben were the composer’s Four Legends (1881) and The Specter’s Bride (1884), a full-scale cantata for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Kytice was for Dvořák as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”) was for Mahler—a lifelong source of musical inspiration.

Yet, these Czech ballads were far more harsh, even gruesome, than those of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, unlike Wunderhorn, they all center on a woman, primarily as a mother or, as in the case of Wood Dove, a wife. Erben is interested in the problems of human relationships, moral decisions, and their consequences. According to one scholar, Erben believed the most basic human relationship is between mother and child and, secondarily, that between her and her husband, as in Wood Dove. “Conflicts in human life arise primarily from the disruption of basic relationships and laws between people. For every crime there comes an often disproportionate punishment. In Erben’s view, people are powerless against the natural forces that surround them. The person is to blame, never society.” In these ballads, as in most fairy tales, the time is indefinite and the space a general place in nature: in a forest, by the lake, or in a hut.

So, following his American sojourn, the one-time composer of Brahmsian symphonies now wrote symphonic poems along the lines of Franz Liszt with musical themes in a constant state of transformation, which must have shocked some of the Viennese faithful. They were everything a Brahms symphony wasn’t: fanciful programmatic titles; vivid, evocative orchestrations; and a symphonic form generated by its program.

The program or narrative basis of Wood Dove is this: A young woman has poisoned her husband and feigns grief at his funeral. She weeps false tears as a handsome young man consoles her: “Don’t cry, don’t wail, young, pretty widow. Take me as your husband.” She falls in love with the young man. Within a month they are married in a flamboyant style, and they dance at the festive wedding: “Laugh, laugh, bride,” the man says, “it suits you well: the dead man underground has deaf ears! Embrace your loved one, don’t be afraid: the coffin is tight enough; it won’t turn!” Time passes, but not her guilt, which increases every day. One day a wild dove alights on the grave of the dead man and its piteous cooing constantly reminds the woman of her culpability: “Don’t coo, don’t call, or I shall jump!,” she exclaims to the dove.

Water flows and flows,
wave chases wave and
a white dress flickers between the waves.
Here a leg appears,
there again a hand pales:
the unfortunate woman
is looking for her own grave!
They dragged her to the shore
and buried her secretly
where footpaths
cross in the rye.
There was to be no grave
for her: only a large stone
pressed her body.
However, a stone cannot
be laid so hard as the curse that rests on her name.

The musical and narrative trajectories are at one with one another; both are in three parts. The poem begins with a funeral of the wife’s husband, a man whom she poisoned and for whom she shed false tears, soothed by a handsome young man. It moves to their wedding, and then to her overriding years of remorse and suicide. In short: a) treachery and “mournfulness”; b) happiness; c) guilt and suicide. Dvořák casts this piece similarly in an ABA musical form, where the “c” part matches the musical mournfulness of the opening.

Leos Janáček, the great 20th-century Czech composer who conducted Wood Dove’s premiere, admired this work and offered an analytical overview: “The widow, a ‘lovely rose,’ is accompanying her [deceased] husband on his last journey—Violoncellos and double basses mark the solemn strides of the funeral procession by a characteristic [dotted] rhythm…. Arching above this rhythm, cast in two voices, is the plaintive melody in violins and flutes, whose beginning, variously altered, appears many times throughout the composition.” This opening section is in a lugubrious C minor, and as we approach the joyous midsection in the parallel major (C) we pass through a lovely, more lively, bucolic A major section with a fanfare-like figure in the trumpets, as if heralding the wedding to come.

The middle, “wedding,” section represents a change of tempo, meter (now 3/4 time), and mode with a full-throttled C-major dance, quite wild at times and reminiscent of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. It is beautifully orchestrated, featuring winds and brass and even drones (bagpipes?) in the cellos and basses. “In the trio [of the dance], we hear ‘pretty’ wedding music,” and a shift to A-flat major with a new, lush texture, now all in the strings, by contrast. The trio returns to the original dance and things get even wilder, followed by a short transition, which comes to an abrupt halt and dissonant tremolos. We now hear the ominous cooing of the dove in the flutes followed by threatening sounds in the bass clarinet, which, according to Janáček, sings, “Stop cooing, stop calling, stop howling into my ear: Your cruel song is piercing my soul!” The wife is having her moments of severe remorse, and her self-destruction is imminent.

Janáček continues that “this is the truly dramatic part of the composition. We can almost see the widow throw herself in despair into the chilly waves that rush to catch up with one another and the brief flashes of her white dress within them. ‘The unlucky woman tried to find herself a grave.’ The mournful funereal sounds are heard again, combined with the dove’s cruel calling.” At the end, we hear a hymn-like benediction.

“The hollow sounds,” according to Janáček, “of the flutes are filled by the dark clarinet and, above the oboe’s G-flat, the trembling tone of the harp.” One’s sonic memory is easily drawn to a similar woodwind benediction at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, or even the hymn-like chorale portions of Dvořák’s Largo from the New World Symphony. Janáček continues, “Under the heavy [chorale] chords pressing against one another we can almost feel the heavy stone weighing down on the unfortunate woman’s body. ‘Yet no stone can ever be as heavy as the curse attached to her name!’”

Wood Dove may well have caused Hanslick to question Dvořák’s motives, but the composer was hardly estranged from the Viennese liberal artistic mainstream. Indeed, twenty years after he submitted his portfolio to the Austrian State Stipendium, he was asked to become a judge for that very fellowship committee, a major honor, given its august leadership in the past. A year later he was awarded the prestigious Austrian Litteris et Artibus medal, and in March 1901 he was made a member of the Austrian House of Lords. Dvořák died before he could complete a final, major symphonic poem, Neptune, a work in four movements.

Bryan Gilliam

Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University, Bryan Gilliam is a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century German music. He is the author of The life of Richard Strauss in the Cambridge Musical Lives series as well as editor of several volumes of Strauss scholarship. His most recent book is Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera.

The first American performance of Wood Dove was given by Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra on October 20, 1899, in Chicago.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Wood Dove were conducted by Wilhelm Gericke, at Symphony Hall, October 13-14, 1905, followed by performances at Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre later that month and performances in Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, ME, the following month.